Destination: Berkeley

Kore Chan/Staff

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It’s easy to hear the words “study abroad” and immediately think of far-off places like Spain, Brazil, South Africa or England, but the truth is that leaving Berkeley is only half the story. Each year, thousands of students flock to the University of California from every corner of the globe for an educational experience away from home. And why not? The promise of beautiful weather, academically renowned campuses and exciting new cities to explore makes California just as desirable a destination as Paris, Rome or Tokyo.

UC Berkeley’s commitment to enriching its campus with a global student body is demonstrated through an assortment of programs, including UC Berkeley Extension, Berkeley Summer Sessions and, most notably, University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). In the 2012-2013 academic year, UCEAP alone has brought 372 participants to UC Berkeley — 340 of whom are undergraduate students. These students represent more than 25 countries and nearly 100 universities, worldwide.

Capucine Riom is one of those students. A Parisian studying at King’s College London, Riom was drawn to UC Berkeley for its reputation in her field, international politics, and for the school’s history.

“All the big movements started here, like the Free Speech Movement,” Riom said. “It’s a spirit I wanted to embrace.”

Like most students studying abroad (or just plain studying), Riom struggles to find the right balance between work and leisure. Having San Francisco a mere BART ride away can be a tempting distraction, but Riom insists that she loves being on campus.

“The facilities are beautiful, and I am really fascinated by my classes — people are so engaging during discussion sections.” Riom said. “And I love the sense of pride here; everyone likes to wear the school colors, which is very unlike the students back home.”

Riom arrived mid-January and will be here for the spring semester, but many international students choose to stay at Berkeley for a longer period of time. Take Sandeep Dama who hails from New Zealand and left his home university — Massey University, Palmerston North — in the fall of 2012 to spend the year at Cal. He expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in May of 2014 and believes that his time abroad will enrich his studies exponentially.

“I knew I wanted to study in America because the mathematics programs here are very strong — so are programs in Germany, but I didn’t want to learn a whole new language, and besides, America’s got the best schools in the world,” Dama said. “I also talked to some of my professors — one of them did his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, and I liked his teaching style, so I figured this would be the place.”

Having never lived away from home for more than a month previously, Dama’s abroad experience has been a challenging, but positive, one.

“I miss home-cooked food, a homey environment, but living (at the International House) has really helped,” Dama said. “I-House gave me a family — Berkeley gave me a family.”

The mention of returning to New Zealand at the end of the semester has Dama shaking his head. More so than the sprawling campus or even Top Dog, it’s the people he’s met here that Dama says he will miss most.

With so many students seeking the opportunity to study abroad at the UC campuses, the task of placing inbound reciprocity students within the UC system belongs to a small team led by Paulette Greisner, the director of reciprocal exchanges at UCEAP. After having read through thousands of applications, Greisner has become an expert at making study abroad dreams become a reality for eager students around the world.

A former exchange student herself, Greisner understands first-hand the challenges as well as the excitement of studying abroad, but she speaks fondly of her year in France and hopes that each participant’s experience will be as transformative as her own.

“Each applicant has their own reason for wanting to study abroad at the UC,” Greisner said, “but there is a general acknowledgement that an international experience is an essential gateway to the future.”